Returning to “Les Miserables” after a couple of decades away, one of the biggest changes in the musical about the French Revolution is that it no longer has revolutions.
The show ditched its constantly spinning turntable several years ago and the result is quite different: a “Les Miz” with more scenery and not as much heart.
The touring production that’s at the Orpheum through the end of the year feels rushed, like there’s no time for quiet moments in the midst of all the bombast of war and tuberculosis and billets-doux. Like one of those concert versions that pop up on PBS pledge drives, there’s a sense it is hustling to get to its biggest hits. But, mon dieu, do those hits deliver.
Some — OK, most — would say the show turns on the tortured relationship between Jean Valjean, the former prisoner who makes a life for himself as a respectable citizen in 19th-century France, and Javert, the police inspector who hounds the ex-con and comes to see a reverse image of himself in Valjean: a man who, like France, is capable of change. But for me, a “Les Miz” lives or dies on its Éponine, and this production has a glorious one in Paige Smallwood.
“Les Miserables” is jam-packed with waifs but Éponine is the waif who escapes her terrible parents, the greedy Thenardiers (Allison Guinn is a hoot as Madame Thenardier). Éponine falls hard for strapping soldier Marius, who friendzones her because he’s into pretty Cossette, even though she’s a simp whose name sounds like something you’d store lace napkins in. And Éponine helps him woo Cossette! You can’t not admire a woman who believes in love, even when it’s not for her, and Smallwood captures both the stiff backbone and the aching vulnerability of Éponine, especially in her big ballad of self-sacrifice, “On My Own.”
The biggest ballad of self-sacrifice, in a show with many, is “Bring Him Home,” Valjean’s in-the-midst-of-battle wish for the safety of Marius. Yes, the melody sounds like Puccini, but it’s one of those songs that, to my ears (which my playlist tells me have heard it 18 times this year) never grows old. Nick Cartell’s version is powerful but also attentive to the plaintive high notes.
Same goes for Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” which Mary Kate Moore delivers plainly and gracefully, without the bawling that must be a temptation in the post-Anne Hathaway era.
Josh Davis also has power but his diction is so mushy that it’s tough to hear what Javert is bellyaching about, especially in his first couple of appearances. Maybe Davis is trying for a conversational approach? That would be in keeping with this new version of “Les Miz,” which is modernized in ways that make it feel less timeless than its predecessor: little Gavroche flashing the I-have-my-eyes-on-you gesture, for instance, and a couple of soloists indulging in “American Idol”-style melisma.
All of which is to say: I miss the old “Les Miserables” but, for an opportunity to hear these glorious songs performed with verve, this version will do nicely.